Compleat Naturalist: Preserving Summer’s Botanical Beauty

By Laura & Hal Mahan

It’s fun to collect many types of plants and plant parts, from wildflowers to fern fronds. You might wish to press leaves and flowers to make decorative items such as bookmarks, note cards, framed wall art or mementos of a hike to insert into a scrapbook.

Pressed specimen of Leucothoe, Dog Hobble, collected by botanist Dr. J. Dan Pittillo. Photo courtesy of WCU Herbarium

Preserved leaves and plant specimens are also useful to keep as references when you are learning about the plants in your area. A collection of dried or preserved plant specimens is called an “herbarium.” Scientific and educational plant collections have been made for hundreds of years. Early collections focused on plants with medicinal properties for use by early herbalists. These early collections were pressed plants mounted on paper and then bound into books.

One of the most famous plant collectors was Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, who invented our system of plant and animal classification. His pressed plant specimens are still used in scientific work today and are housed in special, environmentally controlled vaults at the Linnean Society of London (linnean.org). Modern herbaria are digitizing herbarium specimens by scanning sheets and putting the images online to make them available to students and scientists around the world. (See, for example, ibiblio.org/pic/herbarium.htm).

Although most of us are not saving our pressed leaves for scientific purposes, we can be professional about it. What is the best way to preserve their color and form? Speed is the key. The more quickly your specimen is pressed and dried, the more it will retain its true color and shape.

A thick phone book or other large book will do, but if you want to press plants like the professionals, a plant press comes in handy. This consists of two wooden frames that are 12 by 18 inches, layers of corrugated cardboard, absorbent blotting paper, newspaper and a couple of straps to hold the layers tight. The layers go like this: wooden frame first, then a piece of cardboard, a piece of blotting paper, a piece of folded newspaper with your leaf or plant inside and, finally, another blotter and cardboard on top to start the next layer. The blotting paper will draw the moisture out of the plant, and the corrugated cardboard allows air to flow between layers to speed the drying process. When you’re done with the layers, the second wood frame goes on top, and the straps hold the layers as tight as possible. Keep a record of the date and location where you collected the plant, and always collect ethically.

You’ll need to tighten the straps daily as the plants dry; the drying time depends on the type of plant. Leaves will dry in a couple of days; thicker specimens will take longer. Place your specimen-filled press in a warm dry place, such as the trunk of your car or in your attic, and your plants will dry even faster. Get creative by making an artistic design and framing it, including pressed plants in your scrapbook or delving into the botany of the Southern Appalachians and becoming a citizen scientist. Perhaps your plant collection will be used by a botanist 200 years from now!

Laura and Hal Mahan are owners of The Compleat Naturalist, located at 2 Brook Street in the Historic Biltmore Village. To learn more, visit CompleatNaturalist.com or call 828.274.5430.

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